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Analysts divided on US Pakistan policy

world Updated: Dec 28, 2007 02:22 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
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Washington is divided on how badly US policy to Pakistan has been damaged by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The heart of US policy, it is generally agreed, was to ensure Pakistan transited smoothly from Pervez Musharraf's damaged dictatorship to a more representative government.

One former State Department official who handled Pakistan noted that Bhutto was at the centre of the US's policy for that transition.

Says Frederic Grare, Pakistan expert at Carnegie Endowment, "US policy is going to go down the drain, just as their policy of betting on Bhutto giving Musharraf some legitimacy has fallen apart."

Teresita Schaffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies agreed. "This eliminates the chances for a 'transition' to a more democratic government."

Others believe that the policy, with modifications, can remain on track. Says Ashley Tellis, former senior advisor at the US embassy in New Delhi, "US can still pursue its policies in Pakistan."

He defined them as threefold. One, ensure Pakistan continued to pursue the war on terrorism coming from its tribal areas. Two, ensure a "stable set of governing arrangements" that arose from an "agreement between the Pakistani military and its people."

Finally, in the long-term, ensure Pakistan is stable enough to take on its internal militant Islam problem. A large question mark has now arisen about the centrepiece of the transition policy: the January 8 elections. Jim Pavitt of the Scowcroft Associates and a former CIA operations chief told clients he did not expect elections to be postponed.

But most observers agree it was too early to tell if the elections would actually go ahead. But they all agreed it was essential to US policy that it, at best, be postponed.

"The election has to be held in a manner that it is seen to be fair. That is crucial," says Tellis. But even Pavitt warned Musharraf may be tempted to reimpose an Emergency. Grare feared the US's "only concern would be its relation with the military." Schaffer said much would depend on whether the opposition "now decides to do massive demonstrations or boycotts the polls."

A key question is whether the Pakistan People's Party will be able to pull itself together in time. Some analysts saw an opportunity for a new generation of PPP leaders to arise. But Grare, for example, believed Bhutto's party would find it difficult to recover in the short term.

President George W. Bush's public statement calling for a continuation of the democracy process indicated the US wanted the elections to go ahead.

But many worried whether Musharraf would not necessarily take his cue from Washington. Grare warned that the military "are gradually succeeding in its nice little attempt to sideline the mainstream parties." While most Americans and the media are blaming militant Islamic groups. But privately many analysts noted that after the earlier Karachi attack they had been warned by senior Pakistani politicians that the attack had been a warning to her not to undermine a the political establishment in the Punjab. Says Schaffer, "The PPP is blaming the government and the Inter-Services Intelligence." Grare agrees, "I doubt the Islamists did it."

Many US observers were simply to shocked to make any comments. Ashley Wills, South Asia expert for the firm Wilmer Hale, echoed many by saying it was "a deeply depressing and dangerous development."